I get a flat tire on my bicycle repaired for a ridiculously small amount of money. China is still a very cheap country to live in.
I woke up one morning to find that the rear wheel of my bicycle had gone completely flat. Grumble. So I left it behind as I traveled on to Hunan province with just my feet. Upon returning to Jiangsu I was craving my default mode of local transport. Now I only had a flat tire, I could have just fixed it myself, but why bother when there are people sitting out on the sidewalk whose job it is to do these things?
I wheeled the bike outside, found a misc repair man set up on the corner, and asked him if he could fix my flat. No problem.
This guy’s workshop consisted of what appeared to me to be a pile of junk. Rusted old parts, a ten speed tube, a busted up old tool box, and various grease, dirt, and grime caked tools were spread about in glorious dystrophy over a small section of the sidewalk. These de facto handy men are set up on just about every corner in residential working class China, and they are truly clutch when you have something you need fixed.
The guy took my bike and began cranking on it immediately. He told me to come back later. I went and hung out in the back room of a friend’s outdoor shop that was nearby. A half hour later the repair man was at the door flanked by my now fixed bicycle.
He asked for three yuan.
I experienced an odd feeling that seldom arise in me: guilt. 47 cents seemed to be far too little money for a half hour of labor, a patch, and glue. But this was the price.
I am resolute about not tipping in country’s that don’t have the custom. Simply put, tipping out of bounds is a condescending act, and it’s often taken as an abject insult. In most of the world, service employees are paid by their employers, not directly from the customer. This seems to make sense, but USA culture teaches us that if we see a person working for us we should pay them extra money. (One of the stupidest customs on the planet.) In most of the world there is no differentiation between the labor of the dude that serves you at a restaurant and the dude who paves the road you drive on. Trying to get preferential treatment by flaunting your money and distributing under the table payouts isn’t called a tipping in most of the world, it’s called bribery.
But I still felt strangely odd about paying this guy such a ridiculously small amount of money. I have only felt this way a couple of times before — once was in India when a shoe repairman tried to charge me like 10 cents for his work. But respecting other people and cultures means doing things their way, even if it makes me feel like a choad.
I didn’t listen to my logic though. I handed over 5 yuan and told him to keep it. It then became clear that I had made a simple exchange awkward. The repair man didn’t really seem to know what to do for a moment, then reached into his pocket and fished me out my change.